Track owner offers changes to slots bill

Maryland Jockey Club proposals would pre-empt local government powers

Liquor could be served to 4 a.m.

Anne Arundel executive, some legislators protest

March 13, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park has proposed amendments to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot machines bill that would give the tracks the unfettered right to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. on weekends -- two hours later than bars close in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County.

The suggested amendment is one of a number of potentially inflammatory changes the Maryland Jockey Club has proposed to the gambling legislation. They include a broad pre-emption of local governments' powers to regulate zoning, construction and alcohol at the four racetracks where Ehrlich wants to install slots.

The jockey club's proposal, obtained by The Sun, would apply to its tracks at Pimlico and Laurel, as well as to two separately owned tracks -- Rosecroft in Prince George's County and one to be built in Allegany County.

One proposed amendment would give the racetrack casinos the right to serve alcohol every hour they are open -- regardless of local laws governing other establishments.

Another suggested change would extend the closing time on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays to 4 a.m. The governor had proposed hours of 8 a.m. until 2 a.m., 365 days a year.

In Baltimore, the proposed amendment would make Pimlico the only place in the city with an open bar between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. In Anne Arundel County, Laurel would be given a similar late-night monopoly.

Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the proposal for longer hours was based on a consultant's recommendation.

"By having to close early on Friday and Saturday night, it would reduce the market potential fairly meaningfully," he said. "It was more than a trivial amount."

But Joseph A. Schwartz III, a lobbyist who represents tavern owners, said the longer hours would draw some customers away from his clients and prompt others to go to the track for late-night drinks.

"Those who go somewhere that closes at 2 will get in their cars and careen up to Pimlico," he said.

The proposed amendments brought protests from some legislators and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.

"This is a travesty for local governments," Owens said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a leading slots opponent, called the proposed exemptions from local regulation an "outlandish" deal for the tracks.

"They become little fiefdoms where they become self-regulated, with no oversight or enforcement from anyone," Busch said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a supporter of slots, said the racetrack owners have more serious problems with the embattled legislation than local liquor laws. He said he expects them to conform to local laws.

The jockey club's suggestions surfaced as Ehrlich administration officials were putting the finishing touches on long-awaited amendments to their original bill. The basic outline of the changes was announced more than a week ago, but as of yesterday the specific language had not been delivered to the General Assembly committees handling the bill.

In some respects the jockey club's proposal -- dated three weeks ago -- is remarkably similar to the plans announced by the governor's office last week.

For instance, the jockey club's suggestion that tracks receive 23 percent of the slots proceeds off the top for operational expenses was adopted by Ehrlich. And where the jockey club proposed 3,600 slot machines each at the three Central Maryland racetracks, the administration proposed 3,500.

Ehrlich's proposed split of the remaining money gives the tracks 28 percent, compared with the 30 percent suggested by the jockey club. But the governor allocated far less to local governments and racing purses than the track owner suggested.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said the administration had been given the amendments proposed by the jockey club, which is now owned by Ontario-based Magna Entertainment Corp.

DeLeaver said the administration has received suggestions from many interested parties, adding that "some will be considered and others will not." She said the governor's office would not comment on the proposals until the final amendments are distributed.

The legislature's budget analysts have identified Ehrlich's reliance on up-front fees to help close next year's budget shortfall as one of the key weaknesses of his plan. The analysts have told legislators that the normal processes of local zoning and permit approval could delay the start of slot machine gambling -- and deter track owners from paying the up-front fees.

The Maryland Jockey Club's amendments overriding local prerogatives appear to address that concern.

One would require local governments to treat the huge gambling halls that would house the slots as an "accessory use" to the racetrack in all zoning and permitting decisions -- a relaxed standard that would virtually guarantee approvals.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson did not return calls seeking their reaction.

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